Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Glaciers – Why do they matter?

The melting glaciers have come to be a symbol of climate change. Mostly, the conversation is linked to rising sea levels, which is, of course, a pretty significant issue for the people of small island nations and coastal towns and for the coastal ecosystems. But there are some other important issues related to the glaciers that we have heard discussed here in Copenhagen.
Prior to a screening of the film entitled “The Third Pole” on Sunday, Dr. Shiva discussed some issues related to the Himalayas. She noted that the other poles receive a lot of attention, despite the relatively few people living in these regions. But the “mountains of snow” provide the water supply for one-half of humanity. We often think of adventurous mountain climbers, but at lower altitudes in very remote places, there are many villages and cultures that remain unknown to the majority of us. These people have adapted their way of life to living in the shadows of the greatest mountains on the planet. If you have read Three Cups of Tea you may a bit of insight into this part of the world. (Can it be that polar bears and penguins are more important to us that our distant relatives suffering in another part of the world?)
There is clear scientific and photographic evidence that the glaciers of these mountains are retreating and the snow depth lessening. Depending on the direction of the slope, the rates of retreat of these glaciers ranges from 7 to 27 meters per year. It appears that this has more to do with decreasing snowfalls than with increasing temperatures. Dr. Shiva reported that when she flew over the mountain range to come to Copenhagen (she had been working with the Dalai Lama) it was black in many areas rather than white with snow.
Weather in these areas has been chaotic. This year, the monsoons did not come to India. A cyclone that came over land made it to the base of the Himalayas for the first time in recorded history. On average, the rainfall amounts for a given season appear to be “normal” but in some years, it might all come in a single day. That, is not normal.
The loss of the glaciers in this region has critical implications for the over 2 billion people who rely on water from the annual snow melts that flow into major rivers throughout Asia. The mountains influence weather patterns and according to VS “make India what it is”. Fred Pearce discussed this when he was at MC. But as the glaciers melt, they form lakes on unstable rock ledges. If they burst, the villages below will be wiped out. As some areas dry out and others flood, the pastoralist way of life for many of these peoples is being severely threatened.
Floods did come to the Lubra Valley in Ladakh, India in 2006. The film we watched discussed how the people that survived are trying to rebuild and do what they can to avoid the problems that are really being caused by others. If you need to check Google maps – it is o.k. I suspect others don’t know the geography of this part of the world too well either.
Dr. Shiva noted other signs of change -- species flowering two months earlier than normal, but doing so long before the pollinators are out. Apple production has moved 2000 meters upward the mountain, but this is a high arid region that can't necessarily support growth of fruit trees.
Last night, we had the good fortune to see a presentation on the Extreme Ice Survey narrated by James Balog (leader of this project). Balog is an amazing photographer (first ever recipient of the International League of Conservation Photographers Award, long time photographer for National Geographic, etc.) and a geoscientist. After doing the single frame images for the June 2007 issue of National Geographic entitled “The Big Thaw” he felt that glaciers were key “canaries’ for what was happening in the world due to climate change and that single frame images couldn’t capture what was really happening. He has set up over 30 cameras powered by solar panels and run by computers to take images of retreating glaciers around the world. The project is incredible and the images, including some video footage, showed dramatically the rate of glacial retreat. It didn’t matter if it was at 17,700 feet in Bolivia, the Swiss Alps, Glacier National Park, Alaska, Iceland or Greenland. In Greenland, the discharge of ice has doubled since 1990 (into icebergs that float out to sea). Shelves of ice 30 to 60 stories high break off and one “chunk” was a size equivalent in area of 3000 U.S. Capitol Buildings in size. Balog had a great overlaid image that he really needs to show a few individuals in Congress!
Balog is a firm believer that perception matters and hence we need to show the public concrete observable reality in order for them to start to make sense of the complex science and get past the economic debates. I highly recommend that you catch a glimpse of this project at http://www.extremeicesurvey.org/ .
Someone sent me an email today that had a quote at the bottom that seems particularly relevant to this post. It said “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. (attributed to William Gibson, SciFi author)

James Balog talks with renown climate scientist Stephen Schneider and others from Stanford. They both later chatted with the MC students and me.

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